Contrived set-ups are par for the course when it comes to romantic comedies, and new Brit-rom-com Man Up certainly uses one, but it’s an acceptably original idea. The set-up is thus; 34 year-old singleton Nancy (In a World…’s Lake Bell) who’s often hounded by her family for not trying hard enough to find a suitable man, has a chance encounter with a girl on the train to Waterloo that winds up with the inadvertent exchange of a self-help book. Holding said book was supposed to be the identifier for a blind date with newly divorced 40-year old Jack (Simon Pegg) at the station. Jack naturally assumes Nancy is his date and rather than correcting him, she decides to just go with it.
So it’s just about believable enough to buy into the premise of Man Up. But that is just the first in a series of plot contrivances that will show up along the way, some of which are acceptable, but some of which are decidedly not.
Having to pretend to be someone you’re not feels like a well-worn troupe in comedy, and Man Up doesn’t try to stretch it to breaking point. There are a few jokes about Jessica, the girl Nancy is supposed to be, being a 24 year-old triathlete but that’s about the extent of the awkwardness.
Pegg and Bell undoubtedly have a winning chemistry together. I always find Pegg a likable presence but he’s not had much luck with his leading man roles outside of his work with Edgar Wright. Bell and he work off each other quite convincingly, and she deserves special mention for pulling off one of the best British accents by an American I’ve heard. After their initial meeting and drinks by London’s South Bank, you can totally see why these two would want to keep the night going.
One thing screenwriter Tess Morris gets absolutely right in Man Up is that both leads are basically on the same level. It’s not the case that one is desperately trying to win over and impress the other who’s resisting, and even though Nancy’s deception is more initially obvious, neither is being completely honest with the other in ways that will doubtless come to light.
Man Up gamely takes place over just one evening, and its given a sense of urgency by the fact that Nancy was originally on her way to her parents’ anniversary party. That’s all fine, but you just know it’s going to go through the whole hit-it-off – fracture apart – reconcile rom-com formula over the space of a few hours.
This leads to Jack’s inevitable discovery that Nancy isn’t Jessica. This happens via an old school friend of Nancy’s called Sean randomly happening to work in a bowling alley they visit. Sean (Rory Kinnear) isn’t just an old acquaintance though, he’s actually been dangerously obsessed with her for years to the point of being a literal stalker. Once he catches wind of her game, he responds by – and I am deadly serious here – attempting to blackmail her into performing sexual favours. His presence alone is an inexcusably poor bit of writing but this is something else. His repugnant personality really sours the otherwise breezy tone of Man Up in an almost irreversible manner. And I’m not blaming Kinnear for Sean’s awfulness; no actor could have saved this role.
On the other hand, the revelations behind Jack’s additional motives are handled far better, involving a misplaced man-bag and some notebook swapping. At this point, the film looks to be getting back to the enjoyable course it was on when it began. This almost proves to be true, in fact I’d be interested to see if anyone’s gone through this movie counting just how many drinks Pegg and Bell collectively consume, it’s probably a near-lethal amount.
But then, inevitably, something else goes wrong and the repulsive Sean re-appears. The reason behind this is again, purely lazy writing (Nancy apparently has no phone or internet presence). It’s not that the film expects us to like him, but that we’re supposed to just laugh off the criminal that he is – Nancy’s final line to him is stunningly misjudged.
Director Ben Palmer generally handles the proceedings well, moving things along at an enjoyable pace and making the locations look suitably appealing or not when necessary. I genuinely enjoyed most of Man Up, but it’s just left me thinking about how it’s possible for one character to seriously cripple an otherwise fun movie. If there was some way this film could have existed with Sean completely excised then we might well have had a superior new Brit-rom-com on our hands.